German newspapers recently reported that the NSA targets people who research privacy and anonymity tools online—for instance by searching for information about Tor and Tails—for deeper surveillance. But today, researching something online is the near equivalent to thinking out loud. By ramping up surveillance on people simply for reading about security, freedom of expression easily collapses into self-censorship; speech is chilled; people may become afraid to research and learn.
What effect does this threat to research have on university life? Just this summer student groups at seventeen universities across the country penned open letters in protest of NSA surveillance, calling attention to the pernicious effects of the surveillance state on academic freedom. And despite the fact that the very act of learning about basic online privacy tools subjects one to increased government scrutiny, we sincerely hope this student activism continues.
EFF has long encouraged students and professors to support the Tor project by running a relay on campus. Universities are supposed to be places where exploration and research of new and controversial topics should be encouraged, where freedom of speech and thought should flourish. Although it saddens us that research of any topic in and of itself has become a suspicious activity, it would be tragic if students stopped exercising their First Amendment rights and stopped exploring freedom-enhancing software tools. Anonymity is one way to more freely explore information online.
In fact, the more people use Tor, the safer it is for those who use it. When a university runs a Tor node, the students and professors who back it are contributing to the strengthening of a human rights project that enables a safe, free, and globally connected Internet.
Many are bound to question whether those who seek privacy and anonymity should continue to use Tor knowing that it could subject one to greater NSA scrutiny. After careful consideration, we feel the benefits strongly outweigh the burdens. That’s why we’re continuing the Tor Challenge.
There are plenty of reasons why a university may have reservations about running a Tor relay or exit node on campus. We discuss those concerns as well as ways to address potential risk in part two of this post.
Tor is already on campuses
For years, students and professors have been running Tor exit and relay nodes on college campuses. Whether part of a research project or as an independent, activist-minded contribution to the Tor project, these instances of Tor have helped to make the network more robust and diverse.
Take the nodes set up at University of Pennsylvania, for example, where students maintain multiple Tor relays. Or consider the Tor exit node a student was running a few years ago under his desk in a dorm room at Princeton.
"I gradually made my way through different administrative procedures, talking with several administrators and committees, and finally Princeton's general counsel,” recounted the Princeton alum Tom Lowenthal (now a staff technologist at the Committee to Protect Journalists) about his struggle to demystify the Tor project to the campus administration. “It took a while and numerous meetings but I eventually persuaded them that running a Tor exit node is neither illegal nor unethical, but actively altruistic.”
And in Sweden at Karlstad University, student researchers have installed two middle relays and are currently in the midst of setting up an exit node as well. We wish them the best, as it would be a significant contribution to helping make the Internet safer for activists and journalists who rely on online anonymity tools such as Tor.
In Utah, Jesse Victors, a computer science graduate student at Utah State University is running four relays and two exit nodes at the university as part of his ongoing graduate research into online anonymity tools. He also assists new Tor users in discussion forums and even hosted a Reddit AMA to share his experiences earlier this year.
In Southern California, Alex Ryan, a rising sophomore at Caltech is running a relay too. “I had access to some really amazing resources, and I want to do my part to give back,” Ryan reported. “I think it's a really important tool in this day and age, and Tor is a way for people to avoid undue surveillance.”
As the preceding anecdotes illustrate, while some universities may initially object to running a Tor node on campus, it is possible.
It makes sense to run a Tor node on university and college campuses
University and college campuses function like Internet service providers unto themselves, delivering and uploading content for tens of thousands of users, hosting hundreds of sites, and maintaining email and other communications platforms for tens and even hundreds of thousands of students, faculty, staff, and alumni. University networks are often also very fast and have a vast IP address space. Tor benefits from a diversity of connections, and university networks are often a wonderful and reliable addition to the set of networks that host Tor nodes. Exit nodes can be configured so as not to be a strain on university.
What’s more, configuring and running a Tor node is a learning experience. All too often, Tor is maligned through associations with illegal or criminal activity. But we know that this is a shallow and incomplete understanding of the uses and purposes of anonymous Internet usage. In fact, Tor was initially developed as a U.S. government project in association with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.
Fostering safety and human rights online
The truth is that anonymous browsing is essential for the exercise of the basic human right to free expression in countries where the Internet is filtered or blocked by oppressive regimes. Victims of domestic abuse or medical patients often need to explore the Internet and communicate without fear that their identity will be tied to their activity online, and all kinds of professionals, from inventors with trade secrets to lawyers that need to secure the confidentiality of their clients, use Tor to accomplish their work.
Setting up a Tor node on campus can be a vital and exciting learning opportunity. It helps those who are new to Tor shift away from the demonization of a freedom-enhancing technology, and move towards an understanding rooted in reality.
Professors and students who care about human rights and free speech have the opportunity to participate in strengthening a project of human rights technology. The larger and more diverse and dense the network of Tor nodes is, the better the project works. That means that anonymized Internet connections travel faster and people can use the Internet safely and more efficiently.
The ubiquitous use of privacy and security tools is the Internet’s best hope for protecting the people who really need those tools—people for whom the consequences of being caught speaking out against their government can be imprisonment or death. And the greater the number of ordinary people using Tor and Tails, the harder it is for the NSA to make the case that reading about or using these tools is de facto suspicious.
“Tor is also one of the strongest tools to fight against censorship and information control. I am just one person, and I feel very small when faced with these problems,” reported the student at Utah State University who runs six nodes. “I'm proud to help thousands of others preserve their freedoms. 2.4 million used Tor yesterday, and this number will no doubt continue to rise.”
There are a lot of reasons why a university might be concerned about having Tor traffic exit from their network. In a following post, we offer tips on how to get the conversation started on campus and things to think about when running Tor. It is very important to understand the risks as well as ways to lessen those risks; all of this is discussed in part two of this Deeplink.